From rags to rich kudos

A look at GLAAD's history in the mid-1980s

In the fall of 1985, the AIDS crisis was in high gear. The state of New York adopted new public-health guidelines, which led to the closing of such infamous bars and backrooms as the Mine Shaft and the St. Mark’s Baths. While there was much disagreement in the local gay and lesbian community about such establishments, one thing seemed clear: The times were changing, and the advances made in gay civil rights were in grave danger.

Fueling the antigay fires in 1985 was the New York Post, which had been running a barrage of fearmongering stories about AIDS and had referred to gay bars as “AIDS dens.” Outraged but uncertain how to protest, eight gay men, including “Celluloid Closet” author Vito Russo and “The Body and Its Dangers” scribe Allen Barnett, met on Oct. 30 for a strategy session.

One month later, on Dec. 1, the newly formed GLADL (Gay and Lesbian Anti-Defamation League) turned out 800 people to rage against the “rag.” They underscored the point by dropping yellow rags into a huge pile in front of the entrance to the Post building.

Marcia Pally, dance critic for the Native, spoke at the rally, defining the role of the alliance publicly: “We will be taking complaints from you about derogatory representation of lesbians and gay men in whatever public arena you find it.”

Like all good causes, GLADL needed money. One week after the Post protest, the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village hosted a benefit featuring, among others, “Smart as the Devil” author Felice Picano, who recalls that event:

“It was the moment at which contemporary gay culture came together. The benefit was packed to the rafters. It was a celebration of gay artists, an opportunity to show that there was a gay culture worthy of being noticed.”

Picano stresses that the original purpose of the org was not just to protest. “It was also to celebrate gay arts and media and to encourage accurate representations of gay life,” he says.

In January 1986, the group incorporated, further formalizing its mission, and changed its name to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

In those early years, the group continued to work on gay civil rights issues in local chapters across the country, the same strategy used by its contemporaries ACT-UP and Queer Nation, both of which were defunct by the mid-1990s.

One reason for GLAAD’s survival and continued prominence is its organized, national profile. Its longevity may also be related to the fact that it was less radical and broader in its scope than the other groups.

GLAAD has been highly visible in actions against Dr. Laura and reporting on the Matthew Shepard case by “20/20,” and in support of such shows as “Roseanne,” “Ellen” and “Will & Grace.”

Since 1990, GLAAD has hosted an annual media-awards night, recognizing accomplishments of gay, lesbian, bi and transgendered artists and positive images of GLBT people in the media. This spring, those awards will be presented in New York (Mar. 27), Los Angeles (Apr. 8), and Miami (May 25) and San Francisco (June 10).